Loni Unser & Savanna Little top their best results in Mazda MX5-Cup at St. Pete
It was a successful Saturday for the women of Hixon Motor Sports at St.Petersburg, as Loni Unser became the first woman to score a back-to-back top-10 in the series. Rookie driver Savanna Little secured her personal best result in race 1.
Two rounds into its 2021 season, the Mazda MX-5 Cup travelled to Saint Petersburg, Florida, for its first street circuit race of the year on the support bill of IndyCar.
The series - one of the most exciting yet cost effective form of racing in North America - saw again two female racing driver hitting the track: Loni Unser, fourth generation of a world-renowned racing family, and Savanna Little - winner of the Mazda women's program scholarship. Both Loni and Savanna are tackling their first season in the championship and at this level of professional motorsport for Hixon Motor Sports.
The team owned Bryan Hixon and managed by former W Series racer Shea Holbrook broke the recod for the most female entries at the season opener at Daytona, where Loni and Savanna were also joined by Hannah Grisham and Sabré Cook. At Sebring, Unser and Little continued their steady progress through the field, as both recorded their best finishes to date.
For the third round, Unser's car featured a special livery and was the only entry to support a double-charity awareness program: the Peregrine Fund & Word of Honor Fund. Her new livery, which she also contributed to design, represented a Lockheed Martin F-16 Falcon.
"The Peregrine Fund is based in Boise, Idaho. They focus on conservation and education when it comes to Birds of Prey" - Loni explained.
"Word of Honor provides support that will help facilitate milestones of children Navy Seals and Special Operations personnel that have lost their lives in the line of duty. We decided to tie our two partners together with the look of an F-16 fighter jet. This jet was developed by Lockheed Martin."
The third weekend of the 2021 Mazda MX-5 Cup championship started turbulently with a long red flag period during the qualifying session: Drake Kemper (Provision Motorsports LLC) and Aaron Jeansonne (Provision Motorsports LLC) crashed shortly after the green flag and stopped the session for six minutes as their cars were retrieved. The rest of the field had nine minutes left to set their best lap times and qualify for Saturday's races.
Michael Carter (Carter Racing Enterprises) turned out to be the fastest, ahead of Gresham Wagner (Spark Performance) and Sam Paley (McCumbee McAleer Racing). Loni Unser (Hixon Motor Sports) was an impressive eleventh and Savanna Little (Hixon Motor Sports) qualified P20 for the first race.
The grid for the second race was set by the second fastest laps - which resulted in small differences, as the first five drivers were unchanged. Selin Rollan (Hixon Motor Sports) was able to improve and slotted into third, and Paley was down to fourth.
"I was extremely excited and nervous for St. Pete." - Unser told us. "I know that track requires perfection. If you aren't perfect in hitting your marks you run the risk of hitting the wall and damage your car which could potentially take you out of the race."
"I went out for practice one only having a slight idea of what to expect. I was blown away to say the least. The first couple laps were terrifying. Tracking out to within inches of concrete walls goes against every instinct, but it soon became routine. I was able to finish p14 in practice 1. I knew I would have to put my head down for the rest of the weekend if I wanted to achieve my top 10 goal. In Practice 2, I became more comfortable and walked away confidently with a P11 finish."
"With a series of unfortunate events in qualifying the session was red-flagged for all of 10 minutes. Meaning we only had a couple of laps to get our fast lap. I walked away with a p11 finish."
Race 1 wasn't short of mechanical issues and retirements throughout the field. But let's go back to the start. The Carter, Rollan and Wagner trio battled out into the first corners; the Mazda field proved that even on a track which is notoriously difficult to overtake on, the drivers could swap positions lap after lap. During the fight for the lead, the three drivers were able to pull away - but soon enough only two remained, as Wagner was forced to come back to pit road and retire with a broken drivetrain. But he wasn't alone, as also Jared Thomas (JTR Motorsports Engineering), Paley and Justin Piscitell (McCumbee McAleer Racing) had to retire.
The race was interrupted when Drake Kemper (Provision Motorsports LLC) made contact with a competitor and went off at Turn 4. His car took some time to be recovered and, as the green flag was waved again, it was just a one lap sprint race to the finish line.
Rollan made a perfect restart and left no chances to Carter, taking victory by 0,530 seconds ahead of Carter and Chris Nunes (JTR Motorsports Engineering).
Loni Unser had an outstanding race and kept moving up the order in the first stages: she was up to P6 right before the Pace Car came out. At the restart, she battled hard to defend her position, but lost two places to finish the race on her personal best result of eighth. A post-race penalty promoted Unser to seventh. It was her first ever finish in the top ten.
"Going into race 1, I knew what I had to do. I had to come out of the gates swinging!" - she said. "After a less than optimal start, I knew that if I was patient and drove hard the race would come to me. That is exactly what happened. I found myself all the way up in P6 before a long full-course caution came out. On the restart unfortunately I lost two positions finishing in P8. After the race, I found out the official results stated I was P7 due to a disqualification in tech."
Savanna Little had a more battling race as she made an early contact and fought with her battered car to finish P15 - which nevertheless represents her personal best result in the series, topping her P19 in Sebring.
"Early contact knocked the car out of alignment and we fought handling issues to p15", she said after the morning race.
Micheal Carter was again starting from pole in race 2 and defended his lead from Wagner - who had a big train of cars behind him. Carter was finally able to pull away, but a full course yellow annihilated his comfortable gap.
The neutralization was triggered by Jeansonne's car having caught fire - the driver luckily managed to extricate himself out of his #24 car in a run off area.
The marshals were quick to recover the damaged car and the green flag was back in the air with 26 minutes left on the clock.
Michael Carter pulled away once again, but the battle for second place was as heated as ever, with six cars in contention. Paley was the one to break away from that group and chased Carter while Wagner and Jared Thomas (JTR Motorsports Engineering) collided - the latter being sent into a spin. He would drop down the order, while Wagner could continue.
Race 1 winner Selin Rollan unfortunately scraped the wall with 10 minutes to go and was forced to retire having damaged his #87 Hixon Motor Sports Mazda.
Carter took home the victory with a 2,210 seconds advantage ahead of Paley and Wagner - the biggest margin so far in this year's championship.
Loni Unser drove another remarkable race and was able to finish P10 - continuing her impressive weekend in St. Petersburg.
In doing so, Loni Unser became the first ever woman to brake a historical record, finishing two times back to back in the top-10 in the Madza MX5-Cup.
"Race 2 came down to making fast consistent laps" - said Loni. "It landed me in P10."
"It has been absolutely amazing working with Hixon Motor Sports. The team has become my second family."
But what makes Hixon Motor Sports a success story are not only the women behind the wheel, but also the ones behind the scenes.
"I was the first woman to finish in the top 10 in two consecutive races overall. What people don't realize is, I had two incredible women that were crucial in getting me to that point, Shea Holbrook and Carly Panneton. Shea not only runs HMS, but is also on the radio with me through all of the races spotting and coaching me through the race. She pushed me hard, and I loved every minute of it."
"Carly was at the BSI Racing leading up to the race, helping prep mine and other HMS cars, and I cannot say enough good things about the HMS cars. They are extremely well taken care of and set up."
"Andrew Carbonell has been a huge help to me this year with HMS. His coaching expertise has brought so much value to me. He has changed me as a driver." - added unser.
"It was great having Scott McKinley as car chief. I met Scott when he was my coach at my first ever experience in race cars. So, it is a really cool full-circle moment for us both.
"This is a race weekend I will remember for the rest of my life."
Savanna Little, on the other hand, couldn't keep momentum after her first race and was forced to retire her car. "Race 2 ultimately ended with a retirement due to heat management issues." - she commented.
"Still absolutely incredible to race the streets of St. Petersburg; and even if I wasn’t able to produce the results I had my heart and mind set on, I’m stoked on this surreal opportunity. So many drivers in the field had such worse misfortune than my own, here’s to every one coming back stronger at Mid Ohio", was her conclusion after two intense races in a single day. Savanna also won a honorary team award this weekend, as a recognition to her impressive lap time improvements from the first practice to the second race over the course of the weekend in St. Pete.
The next race of this exciting racing series will be from 14th to 16th of May, as the Mazda MX-5 Cup will again support the North American premier sportscar championship IMSA.
You can learn more about Hixon Motor Sports, the team that broke the record for most women in the series, here.